Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

Opinion: Millennials buck conventional wisdom, head to the 'burbs

Hmmm ... do you think this might have any relevance to a metro area grappling with the issues of transportation, education, affordable housing, etc.? From Bloomberg :

"Millennials are finally starting their own baby boom and heading for the suburbs in big sport utility vehicles, much like their parents did.

"Americans aged about 18 to 34 have become the largest group of homebuyers, and almost half live in the suburbs, according to Zillow Groupdata. As they shop for bigger homes to accommodate growing families, they're upsizing their vehicles to match. U.S. industry sales of large SUVs have jumped 11 percent in the first half of the year, Ford Motor Co.estimates, compared with increases of 9 percent for midsize and 4 percent for small SUVs.

"'We do see that demographic group driving larger sport utility sales as they acquire homes, create families and gain some wealth,' said Michelle Krebs, an analyst at car-shopping website Autotrader. 'They started with compact sport utilities and now, with families, they're moving up.'"

I have been skeptical of sweeping statements about an entire generation -- plenty of adult millennials have lived in rural and suburban settings for some time now -- but most especially the popular notion that millennials were going to make decisions that were dramatically different from older generations once they got to the point of starting families. As the article acknowledges, millennials have delayed those decisions more than previous generations. But the oldest millennials are reaching their mid-30s, settling down, and acting in a very familiar way. Also from the Bloomberg article :

"More millennials are expected to move up into bigger SUVs with three rows of seats and enough cargo space for strollers and portable cribs. Sales of midsize SUVs will grow by 16 percent between now and 2022, while deliveries of the biggest rigs -- think Ford Expeditions and Chevrolet Tahoes -- will jump 25 percent, according to a forecast by researcher LMC Automotive.

"Millennials ranked having children, buying a suburban home and driving a big family vehicle higher in terms of importance than living in a major city or relying on alternate forms of transportation in a survey that Ford conducted in June."

The ramifications of this shift in preference could be huge, particularly for metro Atlanta. Voters in the city of Atlanta last year approved a new sales tax to raise some $2.5 billion for mass transit, in large part on the premise that millennials were demanding more transportation options. That could still be true, but the types of options they want may differ if they're going to the office from the suburbs rather than across town. (A multi-line streetcar network, for instance, may make even less sense than it did before.) And even if the new SUV drivers are still willing to get out of their cars occasionally, planners and policy makers may need to put even more emphasis on connections to the suburbs.

Gentrification has been billed as a potential savior for Atlanta's public schools. But if couples who lived intown as younger adults are forced outward due to soaring prices, especially in the best school zones, that's not going to happen. There's anecdotal evidence that some of the influx along the Beltline, for example, represents empty-nest baby boomers flocking to the city now that they needn't worry about the schools their children attend. (And although Paul Morris recently lost his job as head of the Beltline because of too little progress with affordable housing, the problem is far bigger than the 5,600 lower-priced homes that are supposed to be built as part of the popular redevelopment project. What's more, it's not at all clear the types of affordable housing envisioned for the Beltline, the vast majority of which would surely be multifamily housing, would be the kind to keep young families in the city.)

That's not to say cities should just give up. A big, sweeping statement about millennials favoring the suburbs may also be too simplistic, and even a small shift toward urban living could be significant. But cities' pitch to millennials may need to change as that group ages and begins raising families. It's time for urban school systems to get more serious about innovation and choice, for instance. Transportation options will need to address the everywhere-to-everywhere travel patterns that already exist today and stand to be reinforced, rather than counting on greater acceptance of density. More cities and counties need to be competitive in their tax policies, especially when it comes to property taxes .

It may be still be true that millennials want something a little different from what older generations sought -- just not quite what those older generations, who still make most of the decisions, thought they wanted.

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.